Last month I wrote about the things we’ll be leaving behind when we say goodbye to China, but this month I want to focus on the things we’ll be taking with us when we go: the skills and perspectives we have been developing over the past 20 months.
The first two skills that we have undoubtedly been cultivating during our China time are our flexibility and patience. Any time you’re in an unfamiliar place or situation these two traits are brought to attention, but China has a unique talent for testing just how flexible and patient a person can be (red tape anyone?). In order to cope with some of the more annoying aspects of life as an American in China, we’ve picked up the phrase “cha bu duo” – it’s a Chinese phrase that has become our hakuna matata, but rather than “no worries” it means “alright” or “close enough”. We use it when plans fall through, when new arrangements pop up over night, or when something that should have taken a few hours ends up taking a few days. It’s all cha bu duo, and it’ll all work out in the end. We’ve definitely become pretty zen in China.
Another trait we’ve been honing is our adaptability. China is certainly full of surprises, and keeping up is all any of us can hope for. In fact, early on in our move here we visited Wuhan, a large city in central China, and learned that they have a slogan: “Wuhan: Different Every Day”. However, we’ve long suspected that this particular saying really applies to the country as a whole. I can’t count the number of times we’ve been bewildered by something we’ve seen or heard, but I can say that now it doesn’t really phase us. We’ve learned to take it all in and roll with the punches better than we’ve ever be able to before. From unexplained detours and missing reservations to chicken feet pasta and drinking hot water on 90 degree days, whatever comes, we’ll keep calm, cool, and ready for anything.
Accepting ambiguity is definitely another newly acquired skill. Living abroad always comes with a lot of ambiguity because we’re never quite sure what’s going on (even after asking our thousandth question of the day). However, with China, the ambiguity is off the charts! Partially because the writing system is more like code than language and partially because things have been done in a certain way here for thousands of years – even the locals aren’t always sure why! Luckily rather than frustration, we’ve found peace in not always knowing everything, and more than that, we’ve found that trusting others can really help ease the uncertainty and fear that often accompany ambiguity.
Perhaps a surprising virtue to have further developed in China is our positivity. Before coming to China most of what we heard was negative, in fact, even while living here, we hear a lot of negative things about the people and culture we’re surrounded in (and other cultures and people as well), but rather than bring us down, it has actually increased our positivity and positive associations. We’ve asked a lot of hard questions, and we’ve be given a lot of really great answers. We’ve met so many friends, colleagues, and students that are extremely positive and excited about both the present and the future of their lives, their country, and the world that it has began to rub off on us. The smallest things now seem to bring us joy, and a positive attitude is our norm. We all really are more alike than different, and it’s easy to stay positive when faced with that reality every day.
While I’m actually still working on this one, I think we have developed a bit of a knack for taking compliments. It is very common here to give compliments to your friends, and at first it made me super uncomfortable. I’ve had compliments about my “jade arms”, my “3D face”, and my “beautiful nail shape”, which all left me completely embarrassed and occasionally speechless. With time, however, I’ve learned to take my well-practiced American/European self-deprecation and turn it into a humble reply followed by a reciprocating compliment. A very useful skill!
Another really useful skill we’ve definitely sharpened over these two years is our ability to focus. Noise essentially means nothing to us now. The daily (very early) singing street sweeper, the constant construction clatter, the whirring of air filters, all sorts of clamoring people and blaring traffic are so easily blocked out now. Living in close quarters with 8 million other people has allowed us to focus our attention as never before, which is something we’ll forever appreciate as we intend to continue city living for the foreseeable future.
In the process of all this development, another set of skills has subsequently been brought to our attention in China: communication methods. It’s clear to me now that words are not truly needed for communication. Gestures, facial expressions, pictures, and so many other visual cues end up being more than sufficient. I’ve actually really enjoyed exploring work-arounds for complex topics such as how to get the grocery store people to understand the fundamentals of American life (ie we need deodorant, garlic powder, and tortillas to sustain life!). We’ve also refined our questioning techniques because in English, questions can be complicated and often ambiguous – another skill I had no idea I needed. And if all else fails, we’ve learned to embrace the complex language of emojis and stickers (although my students say my particular style is old-school…and not in the cool way).
There are also a handful of cultural skills we’ve been able to adopt such as the precise methods of selecting, brewing, and sipping some of the finest teas in the world. With that, has also come the ability to drink and occasionally be splashed by scalding hot water. We’ve also perfected our chopsticks skills. I actually now prefer them to a knife and fork, which Tucker finds a little strange, but hey, I’m adaptable. 😉 And finally, one more modern skill we’ve picked up: the art of online shopping. I was never really into Cyber Monday and often failed at buying products online in the US only to end up giving them away rather than attempting a return and redo. But here in China, we’ve become experts at scanning reviews, looking for the tiniest details in photos, measuring twice and buying once. Taobao has been our teacher, and I can’t wait to test out my new found talent on Amazon when we next visit the US.
So many useful skills and so many new perspectives and changes to our collective mindset. I have to thank China and my Chinese culture guides for so effortlessly guiding us through 20 months of one of the most demanding self-development courses I’ve ever been a part of. Just like when we left Poland, I was sure there were changes we’d undergone that would forever be a part of us, and so it is with China as well. Living in a new place changes you, and for that I’m thankful.